You don’t expect nuance in Shankar’s films. Three decades of familiarity with his work (and I won’t deny it, admiration for what he has brought to the theatrical experience) are enough for you to know that most of his films are structured around simple, straightforward messages that can be quickly embossed on a placard, like the one Pakshirajan (Akshay Kumar) carries around in 2.0: “Save birds.” There’s a disclaimer right at the beginning that says the film is inspired by newspaper articles about mobile phone towers being the cause for the disappearance of birds. The briefest research is enough to indicate that this conclusion is debatable, and more importantly, that even if this were set in stone, there are a whole host of other reasons too for the dwindling avian population, including a gradual loss of greenery, unfriendly modern buildings, and the rising temperature. But all this is far too much analysis for the simplistic conclusions peddled in such films.
Cast: Rajinikanth, Amy Jackson
Typically, the director is known to take on an evident evil — bribery, negligence, corruption, and curiously, this time, a not-so-evidently-evil mobile phone technology; and then go on to write a straightforward victim story, before having them turn angry and begin slaughtering people in a misguided plan to right all the wrongs. You saw that in Indian, you saw that in Anniyan, and now again, you see it in 2.0 — or as it can also be called, Anniyan-meets-Chitti. These self-righteously furious victims typically reel off one-liners that seem straight out of a well-meaning high school essay:
Senapathi: “Taking and giving bribes is wrong.”
Anniyan: “I will send negligent people to hell.”
Pakshirajan: “Save birds, or die by my hands.”
It doesn’t even seem like 2.0 can make up its mind over whether it should take Pakshirajan’s side or not. It paints him as a victim that needs your empathy, turns him into a hateful aggressor who deserves to be brought down, but then again, rather confusingly, as he’s threatening to slaughter a whole bunch of people, gives him a background track that suggests you are supposed to enjoy what he’s doing. And immediately after, you are encouraged to root for his enemy. It’s a film about the plight of birds, about a man who pines for them, but then again, its most romanticised character threatens dire harm to birds in order to win what is essentially an ego contest. So, who are we supposed to wish well for? It’s a film that suggests that innocent people being taken down in mass numbers isn’t a good thing, but then, it also suggests that noone with a mobile phone is innocent. Make up your mind, will you?
But yes, it’s silly to expect nuance in these films. It’s the prospect of some memorable, garish entertainment that entices you. Sivaji deciding his strategy with a slow-mo coin toss. A gust of wind ruffling Chitti’s hair as Sanaa walks past him. Or the songs that Shankar usually pulls out all the stops for. 2.0, however, simply looks to ride on the nostalgia of the first film — and that would have been perfectly all right, had this one had its share of highlights too. Alas. So, you’re simply cheering again for Enthiran’s lines like “Onnu nee, innonnu naan” or the bleating noise Chitti 2.0 makes when he sees Vaseegaran.
Curiously, there are no music videos in the film, and this is a filmmaker whose tireless effort to present you music videos is perhaps the last convincing argument for having them. Irumbile in Enthiran or Ladio in I make for such wonderful escapes, and with a winner in Rajaali, it really would have been interesting to see what he may have done with it. It gets used in the background, and at a situation when a thumping number doesn’t quite seem in place.
Rather intriguingly, in this film that demonises technology, it’s technology that’s its biggest strength. The 3D is quite immersive, even if Shankar sometimes seems a bit too eager to sell it — like when bullet after bullet keeps coming at you as if this film were My Dear Chittichathaan. All the ‘formations’ show evidence of rich detailing, and I quite loved the touch to have the mobile phones swarm in the air and make patterns as birds do. Some of the sets are lovely too, as are their VFX-enabled extensions. The place where Chitti 2.0 creates replicas of himself is a thing of digital beauty.
But it’s a lot of painstaking visual padding for underwhelming writing. The dialogues especially are more miss than hit. When a reborn Chitti 2.0 says, “Indha seththu pozhaikardhe thani sugam!” you cheer. However, when a minister looks at ‘unknown number’ on his phone and says “Unnikrishnan-a?”, you cringe. When Chitti says, “Indha rank one two laam paappaa vilayattu. I’m the Super one”, you cheer. However, when he stands with a collection of guns and says, “I’ll set your screens on fire”, you cringe. 2.0 needed much, much better dialogues. All the puns on mobile phones including ‘zero balance’ and ‘not reachable’ feel quite silly, especially when used in serious situations.
In this film that shows great interest in using scientific jargon — microphotons, electromagnetic radiation, cryptochrome protein etc — there’s a fair bit of pseudoscience masking as fact. 2.0 blurts out something about aura, positive energy around the living, negative energy around the dead… Calling a ghost ‘bad aura’ wouldn’t have really been a problem for me in any other film, but given how 2.0 wears the garb of science, it’s important that vague, unscientific declarations get called out. Even cryptochrome protein helping the navigation of birds is under study, and not as chest-thumpingly conclusive as the film projects it to be. Such self-assured leaps of faith, especially when advertised in a hugely popular film, only serve to hinder our understanding of the world. And god knows that more than ever, in this age of memes, we need to be cautious about attractive misinformation.
2.0 kept taking me back to some of Shankar’s own films, given how he seems to repeat his tropes. Sanaa’s jealousy over Vaseegaran having Nila (Amy Jackson) as his robot-secretary, is a reminder of Vaseegaran’s own jealousy when Chitti takes a liking to Sanaa in Enthiran. The whole mosquito portion from Enthiran seems to have led to the creation of a surprise character in this film, but it doesn’t really take off. Pakshirajan’s declaration that every mobile phone user is a murderer harks back to dialogues from Anniyan and especially, Indian, given how the former is a old man too. And then of course, there’s the ubiquitous Shankar flashback portion in 2.0, and as we know, the same idea is in Gentleman, Indian, Jeans, Anniyan, I… You only need to take your pick. One shot especially — of a baby bird in a palm — is quite affecting, and scientific accuracy or otherwise, it’s hard not to well up at the visual.
Also much like in his last film, I, the villains are caricatures. The real villains of this film — the corrupt politician, the mobile phone store owner, the head of the telecom service provider — are all trivialised, and get dialogues that make it impossible to take them seriously. Even Pakshirajan runs out of steam in shockingly underwhelming fashion. Perhaps because of all the Hollywood comparisons, in a scene, Chitti makes an Iron Man-Birdman reference that makes you hope nobody else sees you in the theatre. It’s hard to take the final showdown seriously when the trash-talking game is as silly. It’s also hard to take a film’s intentions about mobile phones seriously, when the said film’s promotions involve asking everyone to take a selfie video that makes them look like Pakshirajan. At a time when people have more or less forgotten that the word ‘tweet’ had once something to do with a bird, this was a chance to make some hardhitting statements. But 2.0 can’t.
2.0 is a technical achievement, no doubt, and the progress achieved during the last decade between Enthiran and 2.0 is quite heartening to note. You only wish that all the technical wizardry were backed by something less repetitive, less uninspired. Rajinikanth, in an interview, recently spoke about how the joy of dreaming is more than the joy of seeing them get realised. On a somewhat similar note, sometimes, it feels like the wait for a Shankar film is more exciting than the actual film itself.
This review was written for Cinema Express, the cinema division of The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to its page if you’d like to share it.